For the creatures and features of Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge and its related projects, this year's statewide drought hasn't been too bad.

It's what lies ahead next year that may set the scene for a different stage.

Neil Shook, Chase Lake NWR project leader, said the drought descended after a 20-year wet cycle. Water levels dropped this year, adding more area to the island where thousands of pelicans breed and nest.

Invasive plants, such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome, also decreased this year, Shook said.

"Another positive from the drought has been it has allowed us to do more projects with (private landowners), such as some of the wetlands restoration work, just because the wetlands are now dry," said Shook, pointing to fencing projects.

However, some flowering plants, including purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan, were down this year, according to Shook.

"As long as this doesn’t continue or get worse for an extended period of time, I think it’s going to be beneficial," he said.

How long an extended period of time may be is up to one's perspective,  whether a farmer, rancher or, if you're Shook, concerned about habitat.

"I’m really curious to see, come this spring, what the response is going to be to the vegetation, to the wetlands," he said. "Even if we remain dry throughout this winter and next spring, I’m still really curious to see what the response is going to be from this year’s being dry all year."

Dryness extending too long may likely affect the local salamander population, a source of food for the Chase Lake pelicans.

Extended drought could bring disease issues to the birds as well, said Shook, adding that pelicans had good production this year with no major disease outbreaks.

"One year, it’s been welcomed. It’s good to see a change," Shook said. "The habitat needed a change and as long as it doesn’t continue for an extended period of time, I think everything will be OK."

About 80 percent of North Dakota remains at least abnormally dry, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. The Chase Lake region between Medina and Woodworth currently ranks as abnormally dry. 

Allen Schlag, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck, said earlier this month that North Dakota's drought has entered a holding pattern likely not to change until wetter spring weather.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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